2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

“Zongjiao / Religion”: A Keyword in the Cultural History of Modern China

Hsi-yüan Chen

Institute of History and Phiology, Academia Sinica

Chinese did not possess the concept of “religion” until the beginning of the twentieth century.  This paper examines the complexities and fluctuation in the formation of the Chinese coinage zongjiao as the equivalent of the English “religion.”  Although the binome zongjiao was employed in early Chinese, only at the beginning of the twentieth century was it imported back from Japanese to translate the generic Western concept “religion.”

Before the concept “religion” was introduced into China, the conventional term jiao (teaching) in a broader sense was widely employed to denominate and define various cultural traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and even illegal cults.  Significantly, not only was Confucianism considered a jiao by common consensus among the literati, it was officially the archetypal and orthodox jiao.  Even when the Chinese usage of zongjiao was resuscitated through the Japanese loanword shūkyō, it took time to be acknowledged as a new categorical concept signifying “religion” and differentiated from the traditional usage of jiao.

When the neologism zongjiao was accepted as the standard translation for the Western concept of “religion” and widely applied to interpret various cultural phenomena, Christianity became the paradigm “religion” and the religiosity of Confucianism became a point of controversy.  This controversy continues to haunt China not only in term of intellectual and cultural debates but also in the realm of social and political activities.


Keywords: religion, zongjiao, shūkyō, Confucianism, Christianity